French police struggle to solve mystery of violent horse attacks

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Horses eat hay in a field in Lattes, near Montpellier, southern France on April 24, 2020.
Horses eat hay in a field in Lattes, near Montpellier, southern France on April 24, 2020. © Pascal Guyot, AFP

More than 30 horses have been mutilated or killed in violent attacks across France since February, with cases rising in recent weeks. French authorities are no closer to finding a motive behind the attacks, but have warned the public not to take matters into their own hands.

The barbaric attacks have been different in nature, but are usually carried out with a knife. Horses, ponies and donkeys have been slashed, disembowelled or bled, had their genitals mutilated, eyes gouged out or, in the majority of cases, had an ear cut off.

The most recent attack took place at 2am on September 6 in the Côte d’Or department in the east of France. A man saw torches in his field and called the police, who sent 40 officers, a dog unit and a helicopter. One of his horses was discovered with a superficial wound. The police have said that they are searching for two men in relation to the attack.

The spate of attacks have drawn widespread attention in France and are under investigation by the DGSI, part of France’s intelligence and security services.

‘Someone has to defend the horses’

Horse owners across the country are terrified. Police have advised them to install cameras on their property, take off horses head collars before setting them loose in the field, patrol the fields at night and ring the police if there is any suspicious activity.

But many owners think it’s not enough, and are frustrated at the lack of support from local police forces.

One woman furiously told French regional TV station France 3 Bretagne: “We’ve had enough! I’m not ashamed to say it, my gun is loaded and I won’t hesitate to shoot if I need to. We can’t be surprised if someone injures or kills one of these individuals. Someone has to defend the horses.”

The authorities are warning against such displays of vigilantism, however.

In Finistère, Brittany, a woman, 51, and her daughter, 23, have been arrested and face up to five years in prison after stopping a car on the road on the night of September 2, suspecting the vehicle’s occupants of involvement in the attacks. The woman and her daughter were both armed with machetes and pellet guns. The two women in the car later filed a complaint.

The head of the police in Finistère, Colonel Nicolas Duvinage, said, “We cannot take justice into our own hands. I remind you that legitimate defence is valid if someone is attacking humans, but not horses. If an owner punches someone, or worse, shoots an individual, they would be liable to a judicial investigation.”

Horse owners share information

Horse owners across France are banding together on social media in an attempt to collate information about the attacks and share resources. Facebook groups titled ‘Protect our horses!’ have sprung up for a number of regional departments in France. Citizens have also created an interactive map in an attempt to track and detail the attacks. The map shows more than 100 cases.

A screenshot of the interactive map created by horse owners in France, taken on 6 September 2020.
A screenshot of the interactive map created by horse owners in France, taken on 6 September 2020. © France 24

Animal charities are supporting horse owners as much as possible. La Fondation Brigitte Bardot, a prominent animal rights organisation founded by the actress of the same name, has promised to bring a civil case against the perpetrators, if found.

The investigation so far

Police have managed to create an identikit of one of two attackers who injured two ponies at an animal sanctuary in Burgundy. The president of the animal sanctuary was woken during the night by the sound of animals in pain. He confronted the attackers and was attacked himself, receiving a knife wound, before they ran away.

Other clues, such as a twitch (an instrument used for restraining horses) found at one crime scene, and evidence that horses have been sedated, suggest that at least some of the attacks are carried out by professionals who know horses.

There are a number of hypotheses for why the attacks are happening, and rumours abound on social media. One hypothesis is that the attacks are committed by a large criminal ring that sells horses organs or blood. Some suggest that the attacks are a gruesome online dare, or part of dark Satanic rituals. The police have also not ruled out that the first attack was a random act of barbarism and subsequent attacks were copy-cat crimes.

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